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Meet Katherine Ferwerda of Social Study in Highland Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Katherine Ferwerda.

Katherine, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My story is about the journey. I’m an adventurer at heart, I love a challenge and don’t care so much where I land, as long as it’s interesting getting there.

I went off to college to study pre-med but after taking a drawing class I was hooked on art. I tried everything — photography, sculpture, painting, eventually getting a BFA from The Rhode Island School of Design in printmaking. I’m definitely a big picture person so I decided to go to graduate school for theater production design at UCSD and the LA Jolla Playhouse. I loved working in theater, it’s so creative and community focused, and I’ve won numerous awards for my designs. I also spent a number of years art directing commercials and high end events — fundraisers, movie premiers and celebrity parties.

It was all very interesting and little bit glamorous, but when I had my son I decided to leave entertainment to do something that would have a more positive impact on the world. I become a sustainable building advisor and began renovating homes. The shop in York started as my design studio. I was re-designing furniture, selling mid-century modern designer pieces, hosting art and music events, as well as working with clients. After two years I was burnt out! However, I recognized opportunities in the changing neighborhood, so I switched gears and turned the store into a “lifestyle store” selling women’s clothing, housewares, and children’s toys.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Owning a store was a significant change for me. I had been building and designing my entire adult life and never considered myself much of a consumer. I’m not at all brand conscious and really had no idea where to start looking for things to sell. I was also unaware of the little details, like price tags and shopping bags! But over the last three years, I’ve discovered the vast resources Los Angeles has to offer, in both the wholesale markets and the craft fairs, and have gone around the country in search of unique gifts and clothing. I always think of sustainability and do my best to support local artisans.

I’ve redesigned the interior three times to accommodate our growth. I added a men’s section this past Spring and am phasing out our children’s toys since we now have two children’s shops just across the street. It’s exciting to watch the neighborhood change but I think our success has largely to do with our willingness to change with it.

I chose the name Social Study because for me being in retail was an exploration of the people in my community and the role retail played in their lives.

For me, being a part of such a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I want to accommodate the new folks coming in but not alienate the existing residents.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Social Study – what should we know?
The goal of Social Study is to present a lifestyle that reflects the growing neighborhood of Highland Park. For many years this was a dangerous gang-ridden area. The past eight years we’ve seen significant change. I’ve had a small business here for five years, so in many ways, I’m a pioneer, and happy to say one of the few original businesses. I attribute this to our focus on our customer’s needs, which is what a lifestyle store should be. But it’s a challenge to keep up with the changes.

I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to design. Fortunately, this is a growing trend now as people are choosing less stuff and better quality. I’m a big fan of the Mid-century modern esthetic. I kept a number of my favorite pieces of furniture from my original store and use them as my display fixture. They give the store the feeling that you are wandering around someone’s home, albeit a really cool loft space. I have a huge variety of items but I’m very particular about my merchandising and can’t stand clutter. I think that makes people feel relaxed and comfortable. My customers frequently tell me how they wish they could live in the store. That’s the best compliment!

Another comment I frequently hear is that there is something for everyone and a little bit of everything. I’m very story driven, (it’s embedded from my theater design training) so when I’m out shopping I usually have a cast of characters in my head. I think about what these people are doing as they go through their day. How do they wake up, what do they do for work, how do they entertain and relax. We have so many new families living in Highland Park, most of whom have invested heavily in their homes. Housing prices have skyrocketed here but many of my customers have lived here five, ten, twenty years. It’s very important to offer a range of price points so that everyone who walks through the door feels welcome and not alienated from the new neighborhood shops. I’m less interested in bringing in folks from more affluent areas. My job is to meet the needs of my community. I think that’s why I’ve had the success I’ve had.

I’ve tried to involve the community with my store and well. We have a gated back area where we would host music events featuring multiple bands. We’ve hosted fundraisers for local schools. For the past year, I offered up one of my windows to local installation artists to do works commenting on the community. I’ve also opened my space up to local political groups for meetings and hosted a big event for Indivisible Highland Park in the sanctuary city cause where our local city council representative Gil Cedillo spoke. It’s important for me to use my business as a way to make a personal and positive impact on my community. That’s something big box stores will never be able to do.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
As I said before, owning a retail store was a 180-degree shift for me. However, it’s the first time in my 25 years living in Los Angeles that I feel like I’m a part of a true community. That means so much to me! I’m from the Mid-west and community is everything. Getting to know my customers is what keeps me interested in the store. I jokingly call myself The Retail Bartender because people will come in just start talking about their lives. I’ve gained a whole new group of friends, in both customers and other business owners, being on the street. I’ve given out my share of advice as well, most of which I’d like to think has been good. I’ve helped people build their brands, go back to school, publish magazines, find pre-schools. I’ve heard stories of grief as well and done my best of comfort people. My life has been so full of colorful experiences, it’s nice to feel as if I can share some of that with other folks in a positive way.

My biggest influence in my life has most definitely been my mother. She passed away last year after suffering for many years with a variety of illnesses.

Although we were always very close, it wasn’t until she was gone that I realized how much of an influence she had on me. She was a remarkable community organizer and philanthropist and always carried herself with style and grace.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 5028 1/2 York Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90042
  • Website: www.socialstudystore.com
  • Phone: 213-700-1811
  • Email: katherine@socialstudystore.com
  • Instagram: socialstudystore
  • Facebook: socialstudystore
  • Yelp: Social Study

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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